"ANSWER A FOOL ACCORDING TO
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit” (Prov. 26:4 and 5).
Is there contradiction in the advice given to us by Solomon in the two statements quoted above?
Some have said so, and condemned the Scripture accordingly. But reflection thereon, particularly if our reflection is based on experience, soon convinces us that there is profound wisdom embodied in this apparently conflicting advice offered for dealing with “fools.” Solomon recognises that there is no one simple and universal method of dealing with these people: further that he who would seek to put them right must watch his own steps carefully. Before we intervene in the matter of a fool and his folly we should consider well both the fool and ourselves. If, by answering him, we merely reflect his characteristics and so add yet another to the already sufficiently high proportion of these people in the community, wisdom suggests we should refrain from intervention: if, on the other hand, our answer is likely to have the effect of exposing his folly and preventing a repetition of it—which might be the case if his views were allowed to pass unchallenged—then we shall be discharging a valuable service both to the fool, and even more so to the community. It is evident, however, that before we can decide which of the two courses of action is appropriate we must first consider the situation, weigh the probable results of both courses and so determine which should be applied in any particular case.
We have referred to this relatively simple matter in order to illustrate an important aspect of applying Bible teaching to the problems and situations which arise in our experience, and which may be overlooked unless we are on our guard. In our early days in the Truth we tend to seek out and to emphasise the clear-cut definitions and decisions which the Word of God seems to demand in our relationships both inside and outside the Body of Christ. Many of these remain for all time of this nature, and form the basis of our conduct. But as our experience of life grows and our knowledge of the Truth broadens and deepens, we find that many of the problems we have to face and many of the decisions we have to make do not consist in a simple choice between what is unquestionably right and what is indubitably wrong: often a decision has to be made on the application of two principles both of which are commended to us in the Scriptures; or we may be called upon to harmonise two principles which apparently are in conflict. We find it is not sufficient just to find one passage dealing with a specific matter and apply that blindly: there is often additional teaching dealing with other aspects of that matter which must be kept in mind and applied if we are to secure a really scriptural decision. We shall find that what we have discovered to be true on the relatively low plane of “answering a fool according to his folly” is applicable in higher matters, and that our decisions must be based on a careful weighing of all the scriptural teaching available and the circumstances of the particular case. A few examples will illustrate.
We are all familiar with Christ’s words in Matt. 12:30:
“He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.”
Doubtless we have all used them on occasion to emphasise the necessity for uncompromising allegiance to Christ and his call. But we must also remember Christ’s words in Mark 9:40: “He that is not against us is on our part.” Is there contradiction in Christ’s teaching? That is impossible: and we find from a careful consideration of the circumstances of the two cases that both statements are true in relation to the specific conditions which gave them expression. Both aspects have their place in the teaching of Christ, and it is essential that in our application of his teaching to the problems of our experience we keep both in mind and endeavour to make the correct choice in any given situation.
We have all heard of the terrific controversy which raged in theological circles on the question of “justification by faith or justification by works.” Each side was able to quote arguments from Scripture in support of its claims. Neither side, however, would accept the full teaching of the Bible on the question, and belittled or rejected the Scripture advanced by its opponents. Martin Luther, for example, who was a staunch advocate of “justification by faith,” is stated to have dismissed the Epistle of James, which speaks of “justification by works”, as an “epistle of straw”! The whole counsel of God in this matter finds a place for both aspects: as Dr. Thomas has put it tersely: “A sinner requires justification by faith to become a saint: a saint needs justification by works to ensure salvation.”
In facing the special problems which confront us in these difficult days it is especially necessary for us to ensure that in dealing with any situation which may arise we keep before us all the teaching of Scripture applicable to the matter, and seek a solution based on the whole counsel of God. It is not enough for us to be satisfied with one side of the question and neglect equally important evidence on other aspects. Only by considering all that the Scriptures have revealed can we form a correct judgment and follow the way of understanding.
In searching the Scriptures for guidance as to our attitude toward those without in these days of warfare we may find the commandment given by Moses to Israel recorded in Deuteronomy regarding Israel’s relationship to the nations of Canaan:
“Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days.”
Here we have Israel, God’s chosen people, being warned of their attitude towards those who are outside the covenants of God, and we might decide that here we have the very thing we require. But when we read further in the Scriptures we find Jeremiah speaking to Israel in later days and in different circumstances:
“Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”
Which advice shall we follow? Each quotation has been recommended to us recently as the appropriate attitude the Brotherhood should adopt in these days. How shall we decide? Surely the only safe method is to compare the circumstances of the two cases critically and see which approximates most closely to our own times: and when this is done we think there can be no difficulty in making our choice.